The Istanbul city hall building is a huge modern structure at the heart of the city’s historic peninsula, which is otherwise replete with Ottoman-era mosques and remnants of Byzantine churches. The building’s mid-century modernism reflects the yearnings of the young republic in the early 1950s, when Turkey was about to join NATO, eager to claim its place in the West.
But the edifice represents more than just Turkey’s contrasts with its own past. Now it is the central battleground for the survival of Turkish democracy since the opposition’s victory in local elections last month.
Last month, I went to the municipality to meet with Ekrem Imamoglu, the new mayor of Istanbul, who wrenched the city from 25 years of conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule at the end of March following a fierce campaign. Across Turkey, opposition candidates won all but one of Turkey’s major cities despite the government’s total control over media, wanton use of state resources and relentless accusations of “support for terrorism” against its critics. This was a rejection against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism — but also a response to economic mismanagement that has resulted in a recession.
Imamoglu’s opponent was the former prime minister Binali Yildirim. But, in reality, he ran against Erdogan, who held as many as eight rallies a day; he had said, “if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” Erdogan himself gained prominence in politics in 1994 by becoming mayor of Istanbul. A quarter of a century later, the city that launched him into national politics has now shown the world that he is not invincible.
Imamoglu is an even-tempered and articulate man in his late 40s. He was the mayor of a lower-income district in Istanbul, Beylikduzu, where locals liked the municipal services and the parks and green spaces that he created. Istanbul is a bustling metropolis of 16 million, with heavy traffic and miles of concrete. Its citizens are desperate for anything that resembles a tree. (The massive anti-government uprising of 2013 was a response to a plan to turn a downtown public park, Gezi, into a shopping mall.) Imamoglu won by simply promising a more livable city.
But Imamoglu’s real ability was coalition-building. He enlisted the support of not just secularists and liberals, but also Kurds and a small group of disgruntled conservatives. The latter two had in the past been drawn to Erdogan’s promise of reform, but today resent the dark and inward-looking regime he oversees.
Turkey’s opposition leaders had long thought that defeating Erdogan would require a tough-talking, bellicose candidate. Instead, they succeeded with someone who turned the other cheek at the government-controlled media outlet’s real and fabricated accusations and used a language so inclusive that citizens of Istanbul started to remember they were not each other’s enemy. While the government railed against internal and external “enemies,” Imamoglu talked about solidarity. “I am asking you to go home tonight and find a neighbor who doesn’t think like you or is from a different party, and just give them a hug,” he said.
But Imamoglu’s election goes beyond feel-good, neighborly solidarity. It has the potential to change the political trajectory of Turkey. Istanbul has long financed the AKP’s patronage networks and election campaigns. The city is more populous than most European countries and has a budget of around $10 billion. Part of that money used to pay for stipends to Erdogan loyalists, fund AKP-linked foundations, companies, pro-government newspapers and election campaigns. The budget will now be under someone else’s control.
Erdogan understands what’s at stake and, therefore, for him the battle for Istanbul is not over. The AKP is pushing to get the Istanbul results annulled based on alleged irregularities. The markets are jittery — worried about the possibility of new elections and a brewing crisis with Washington over Turkey’s desire to purchase a Russian-made antimissile system.
All of this means that Imamoglu needs to prepare for a hard fight.
When I visited him recently, during his first day in office, he told me his plans to overcome possible financial hurdles Ankara might set in his way and the need to reach out to the million refugees in Istanbul. He said he was eager to get to work and sounded confident that he could follow a different path than the bruising partisanship that has characterized Erdogan’s reign.
Other then his assistant, media adviser and a handful of visitors that day, everyone in the building is a holdover from 25 years of AKP rule. After our interview, he was schedule for a town hall meeting with city workers. I listened to what turned out to be a remarkable speech. “I am not the one providing your bread,” he told them. “You are employed thanks to taxes from 16 million Istanbul citizens. I plan on being the best mayor of this town, and I want all of you to contribute. It could be that you have entered local government with a particular political affiliation. All that is behind us.”
It was then that the wider ramifications of his office became apparent. If Imamoglu and other opposition mayors like him are allowed to govern, there is a chance that Turkey will finally enter a period of “normalization.” Municipalities would turn into new power centers and provide a breathing space for the secular and democratic public. More importantly, dissenters among AKP ranks, like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu or former president Abdullah Gul, who are openly critical of Erdogan’s policies, would feel emboldened to spearhead new political movements. Facing competition here and there, Erdogan would inevitably have to loosen up repressive policies.
But it’s also possible that Erdogan will not accept this. If he succeeds in throwing out the Istanbul election result, Turkey will enter a period of instability, with even more institutionalized authoritarianism. Since 1946, the legitimacy of elections have not been contested in Turkey, and even the military junta accepted a defeat in the first election after the 1980 coup. By destroying the legitimacy of the ballot, Erdogan would effectively announce the death of Turkish democracy.